A gay Republican -- it’s the unicorn of the political spectrum, and Fred Karger is the leader of the mystical herd.
Karger, the president of Rights Equal Rights, was the first openly gay presidential candidate in any major party, and ironically for some, he was aiming for the Republican nod. And as a nod to the fact that he’s so unknown his campaign was built around the slogan “Fred Who?”
“It doesn’t get easier, it gets tougher,” Karger, 63, said of being a gay Republican. “The Republican Party has just been hijacked by the far right and that’s one of the reasons I ran. It’s not the Republican Party I grew up with.”
According to a poll from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, 23 percent of voters who identify as gay voted for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012.
“Particularly LGBT Republicans have fled because all the bad things that have happened in this country, LGBT rights, have come from Republicans. But I am of a different philosophy. I feel that change happens from within… everyone can walk away or we can change from within,” he said.
Karger grew up in Glencoe, a suburb 20 miles north of Chicago, in an upcoming akin to “Leave it to Beaver,” he said. His father was a stockbroker, his mother a homemaker, and he had one older brother. It was his father that introduced him to the world of politics as a little boy.
“He would drag my brother and me along handing out campaign literature to commuters at our local train station and I kind of caught the political bug,” he said.
Being only 6 years old, he excelled at his duty since people had a hard time not accepting a flier from a little boy. In his teens, he continued his civic involvement by volunteering for candidates that had campaign offices close enough for him to ride his bike or take the train to. He didn’t do well in sports or school, but he felt comfortable talking shop with candidates and working toward Election Day.
It was also a distraction to the turmoil he felt about his sexuality. The summer between high school and college, he had his first “gay encounter” in Chicago and finally came out to himself -- the first step, he said. A few years later, a gay uncle killed himself and the worries escalated.
“I was very confused and I thought I could become straight,” he said, seeing multiple psychologists to try and change his sexuality.
However, they all told him it wasn’t something that couldn’t be undone, but they could work with him to accept himself the way he was. That coupled with meeting a man in college, who he considered a role model, helped ease his mind.
But he still hadn’t come out to friends and family. After college, still struggling with his sexuality, he decided to change his surroundings and pursue acting in Los Angeles. There he landed bit parts in commercials, television series, and the movie “Airport 1975.” He gave himself three years to reach superstardom -- when he didn’t, he decided to return to the world of politics.
“It was a fun experience, but it wasn’t for me,” he said of acting.
Finally, he came out to close friends in his mid to late 20s, having “the talk” that he says he remembers vividly with each person. He wouldn’t come out to his parents until he was 41, his brother the following year. He describes it as “freeing,” no longer having to only bring his straight friends around or lying about his life during calls with his mother.
Open with friends and dating, he was active in politics but never ran himself -- being gay, Karger says it just wasn’t a possibility at the time, and for decades it held him back. That all changed in 2008 when he stood up against Proposition 8, which would eliminate the rights for gays to marry in California.
“It wasn't until I came out as a result of Prop 8 and became identified as a gay activist and, of course, talked openly about my sexuality that then, OK, this obstacle that’s kept me from running for office my whole life is no longer, and it was a very freeing experience for me knowing that now there were no doors shut for me,” he said.
Karger really made headlines when he took on the Mormon Church and revealed its intense support for Proposition 8. He looked at the names of donors for the cause, not recognizing many of them donating large sums of money -- as someone who had been in politics for decades, this was unusual. Through research, he discovered they were members of the Church of Latter Day Saints. He filed seven ethics violations complaints against the church and worked with Wall Street Journal reporter, Mark Schoofs, on the story.
“I was given this treasure trove of these secret Mormon documents, hundreds and hundreds of them, which someone had literally laid at my doorstep detailing all the things they had done -- not just on Prop 8, but going back to the very first gay marriage election in Hawaii in 1998 all the way through Prop 8,” he said. “I take off the gloves when it comes to the Mormon Church and will continue to until they go about their business the way they should be doing, like helping the poor and victims of natural disasters and stay away from demonizing LGBT people.”
With the 2012 election nearing, Karger had aspirations for the White House. He made a checklist of 11 items that needed to happen before he would consider running for office. One by one, each item happened, including Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, being elected.
Although he’s a Republican, he identifies as a moderate -- he is in favor of keeping jobs in the U.S., passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a pathway to citizenship, lowering the voting age, legalizing marijuana, a woman’s right to choose, energy independence, and LGBT rights.
“I just thought as a gay Republican, I would make for an interesting headline,” he said.
However, Karger didn’t make the nomination and conceded in July 2012. For now, a run for president again in 2016 doesn’t seem likely. Instead, he continues to fight for LGBT rights and against the Mormon Church.
“I have not made any decision… I want to see who all is running and I’m very content to act in my activism,” he said.